Photo: From left, Aidaa Peerzada, Shakara Wright and Candace Boahene in “School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play.” Photo by Michael Henninger.
Queen Bees reign supreme this theater season with back-to-back productions in the Cultural District.
The fun begins with the PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh tour of Tina Fey’s high-energy “Mean Girls” musical at the Benedum Center. Next up is Pittsburgh Public Theater’s “School Girls; or the African Mean Girls Play” at the O’Reilly Theater.
One takes place in a Chicago public high school, the other in a boarding school in Ghana. But the issues of these female brat packs transcend time and place.
“Mean Girls” remains true to the 2004 film about 16-year-old Cady Heron, a transplant from Africa, where her parents homeschooled her. Her introduction to an American high school brings Cady face-to-face with teen royalty, led by the infamous and diabolical Regina George.
Meanwhile, over in Ghana, the beautiful and vindictive Paulina rules her own collection of acolytes in “School Girls.” When they learn about a contest to represent Ghana in the Miss Global Universe competition, everyone agrees that Paulina is a sure thing. But with the arrival of Ericka, a transfer student from exotic Ohio, Paulina’s power begins to get a bit shaky.
The two productions offer lessons in friendship, self-esteem and standing up to a bully. Both entertain with delicious cattiness, rivalry and spiteful revenge. As Gretchen from “Mean Girls” would say: “They’re so fetch!”
Here are our takeaways:
1. Be wary of boastful companions.
The grass often looks greener, but sometimes kids who brag about themselves and their possessions are exaggerating. Take Paulina, in “School Girls,” who holds court talking about her cousins in America who send her fancy designer clothes.
Her Aunt Salo works at a high-class restaurant, she brags. White Castle.
“She is always shopping for me at all the trendy American boutiques. Conway. Walmart. The list goes on.” And for the upcoming dance, Pauline announces: “I’ll be wearing my very own Calvin Klean!”
2. Theater sparks conversation.
Teens and parents leave the theater primed for personal discussions about social norms, school cliques and insecurities. Connecting with characters and stories can help initiate meaningful conversations across generations.
“I was in a group like this in my primary and high school days and I did experience many of the issues that are in the play,” says “School Girls” director Shariffa Ali, a Kenyan native who grew up in South Africa. “I’m getting to have honest conversations about internalized self-hate, self-esteem, body consciousness and skin consciousness.”
Pittsburgh native Gaelen Gilliland, on tour with “Mean Girls,” sees that exchange as an extension of audience participation.
“You’re watching a piece, you’re interpreting it in your own specific, individual, personal way,” she says. “And then talking about it after furthers that experience of interpretation.”
3. What goes around, comes around.
While these cautionary tales offer viewers the satisfaction of seeing those who have mistreated others punished, they also present a chance at redemption. We learn at a very early age that when you’re mean to people, they’re likely to be mean to you.
4. Beware of subjective beauty standards.
Being pressured about how to dress and how to act goes beyond “on Wednesdays we wear pink!” It can be a matter of exclusion, snubbing those who don’t fit the popular standards. Or it can result in isolation for those who are body shamed.
“How we look should not be the only way that we find ourselves,” Ali says. “We are so much more than how we present to the world. It’s okay to care about how you look and how you present, but getting your education, making sure that you’re a good friend, making sure that you can be relied upon is important.”
5. Look beyond the superficial.
These stories highlight how we are all at the mercy of trends, “whether you’re in Pittsburgh or a corner of West Africa,” Ali says. “We all sometimes feel inferior and insignificant.”
“What’s Wrong with Me?” in “Mean Girls” is sung by an insecure teen – and an insecure mom. Yes, grownups, too, suffer from fear of not fitting in and the dreaded FOMO, fear of missing out.
Even Headmistress Francis and the Miss Ghana recruiter reveal a mean girl history from their school days. “You haven’t changed one bit since secondary school,” Headmistress says. “If it doesn’t benefit you, who cares!”
Acknowledging that we might not be the prettiest, or the one with the best complexion, the biggest house or coolest clothes, opens us up to find out who we are and where we fit in.
6. Always remember to #bethekindkid.
Pittsburgh schools have embraced the #bethekindkid movement to encourage more understanding and respect among students. It’s a practice that can help close the door on the mean girl syndrome.
“Empathy can be learned,” says Gilliland, who plays two moms – the nurturing Mrs. Heron and the plastic Mrs. George – and supportive teacher, Ms. Norbury, in “Mean Girls.” “It takes quite a bit of intuition and interpretation and actually listening to a person, actually talking to a person and looking at the situation, for that to happen.”
And bullies need empathy, too.
“Sometimes, hurt people hurt people,” Ali says. “Sometimes, the bully in our lives isn’t necessarily just bad because they want to be bad. They’re bad because they’re hurting, too. If we don’t work to address those concerns at a young age, they manifest in other ways and become pervasive as people mature and become adults.”
“Mean Girls” and “School Girls; the African Mean Girls Play” are best for tweens, teens and older. Pittsburgh Public Theater tickets are discounted to $16.50 for ages 26 and younger.